Toad The Wet Sprocket Grows Up
They've got a name that makes some people roll their eyes and assume the worst. They've had a handful of hits, but they could walk unnoticed down any street you'd care to name. They're a band that cares more about the integrity of their music than the airplay it receives. They're Toad the Wet Sprocket, and they'll be playing at The World Music Theatre this Sunday, August 3, as part of the H.O.R.D.E. Fest (which also includes Neil Young, Morphine, Ben Folds Five and others).
Toad is on the road—after more than a year and a half absence—in support of Coil, their fifth regular studio album released in May. The band actually has a sixth CD on the shelves as well — 1996's In Light Syrup, a collection of rarities. Coil has already spawned a hit radio single in "Come Down," a fast-paced followup to last year's easy amblin' "Good Intentions" single from Syrup.
Toad's singer/songwriter Todd Phillips and drummer Randy Guss sat down to talk about making Coil before a headlining show a few weeks back at Chicago's Metro, in preparation for joining the H.O.R.D.E. tour. It was obvious during that show, as the band bantered easily with the audience, and larked through a cover of The Bee Gees' "More Than A Woman" that Toad is glad to be back.
Guss explains that after the tour for their last regular LP, Dulcinea, the band opted to take more than a year off from the road. During much of that time, the members pursued individual interests. After working almost nonstop since releasing its first album Bread and Circus on Columbia back in 1989, Toad needed a bit of breathing space.
"We toured with Cranberries in August of 1995, and that was the last time we toured," Guss says. That tour also brought them to the World Theatre.
"When we came home from that tour, Glenn spent most of his time with his wife, who had a daughter that November. Todd [Nichols, guitarist], at that time, started building a studio in his house and Dean [Dinning, bassist] was helping him. We would speak with each other, and kind of hang out together, but we weren't working. It was March or April of 1996 that we started rehearsing together and working on new stuff. So we were off for seven or eight months."
As Phillips spent time with his family and Dinning and Nichols built the studio that would eventually serve as the site for the recording of Coil, Guss played drums for a friend whose band Stegasaurus was recently signed to Reprise Records. It was a refreshing break for the band, but Guss and Phillips agree that they're glad to be making Toad music again.
"It's good to be back," Guss says. "I think the band kind of grew up during that time off. So to be back on the road as adults feels kind of weird. It feels like we're kind of old to be playing a rock show, but also I feel much more centered — I think we all do. We feel like we belong here."
Phillips admits that being back on the road is "kind of tiring."
"A lot of what happens on the road is so separate from anything having to do with music," Phillips explains. "There's a lot of excess baggage, I think, in being in a rock band. But being on the H.O.R.D.E. tour this summer is great."
Phillips notes that being on the same bill with Ben Folds Five is a special bonus for him — "Ben Folds Five's CD is the newest album that I've really dug. The last album before that that I really wore into the ground was the last Radiohead album, The Bends."
It's pretty easy to put on any of Phillips' own records and wear them into the ground. Toad The Wet Sprocket has consistently written sharp, challenging rock songs, often with a heavy contemplative side. Songs like "Walk On The Ocean," "Fall Down," "I Will Not Take These Things For Granted," and "Fly From Heaven" challenged the strictures of the traditional throwaway pop rock song by not only being singalong catchy, but by making the listeners think. The new disc is no exception: Coil offers songs about the moral choices of the male ego ("Little Man, Big Man"), learning to accept the offerings of life with patience ("All Things In Time") and even a song about "Little Buddha."
Guss notes that regardless of one's religious background, the "life is suffering" mantra of "Little Buddha" is a universal truth.
"Whatever religion you're coming from, that's the basis: you're not enlightened—and that's good. Life is suffering not because I have to work and do all these things I don't like to do, but because you're not one with the spirit. It's the fact that you haven't found what you're looking for that keeps you moving in that direction, keeps you searching and struggling. And that's what life is. Life is the searching and the struggling to become one. There's a beauty to that."
Some of the tracks on Coil are the most personal songs Phillips has recorded to date.
"It's not that they have the least room for interpretation, but they're just not as vague [as songs from other albums]," he shrugs, noting that "Dam Would Break" is currently his favorite song from the album.
"It means a lot to me," he says. "That song is about remaining aware. I have this friend who talks about thinking about your breathing. He says if you can actually be aware of your breathing all the time, it keeps your mind from wandering. The song is sort of about that — about staying present and not fading away."
One track hidden on the CD is actually not accessible unless you log onto the Internet and access Toad's web site (www.houseoftoad.com). "Silo Lullabye" is an eerily beautiful song backed by a full orchestra conducted by longtime arranger Van Dyke Parks. Guss explains that the song just didn't fit the flow of the rest of the album, but the band wanted to offer it to fans somehow, while keeping it "separate" from the rest of the disc.
"It's just like "Good Intentions," which got created for Fear but didn't end up getting put on Fear," he says. ("Good Intentions" later was a hit from the B-sides collection In Light Syrup.) "Sometimes you have to do that," he says of holding a song back. "An album should be a whole piece, it's not just a collection of songs. You don't just pick the 12 or 13 best songs and put them on there."
The full orchestra arrangement was just one aspect of the band's expanded songwriting pallette on the new record. The entire band was given more room than usual to experiment in coming up with the "best songs" for Coil, thanks to the studio Todd and Dean built. With their own studio to work in, the band didn't have to watch the time clock of a pro studio and count the dollar signs adding up with each minute.
"It meant that we could go home each night from the studio and that if Todd was going to work on guitar ideas for a few days, we didn't have to sit there and wait for him," Guss explains. "You didn't feel like you were wasting your money in a studio while you experimented or that you were boring everyone."
Toad has a history of recording in the most cost effective way possible (they recorded their first album for hundreds — not the usual tens of thousands — of dollars) so it's not surprising that they eventually built their own facility.
"Glenn had the equipment, Todd had the space and he built it with Dean's help," Guss says. "We've always tried to avoid the studio horror stories — where you go in there and it takes four times as long and costs 10 times as much as you imagined. We didn't have to obsess about things as much. Doing things at Todd's really freed us up. During the recording of Dulcinea, while we waited around in the studio, I read all of Don Quixote—which is a long book. And we watched every single "Star Trek The Next Generation" episode. So that should tell you how much free time we had while we were waiting. And how sick we were."
They're feeling better now. And making some of their best music ever. Coil is a rich tapestry of rock and rhythm that begs for repeated listening. Not to mention stardom — despite a handful of radio hits, this is still a band that seems invisible to the public spotlight. But as the new album's closing track "All Things In Time" warns, that's something that the band may need to wait for:
"The best thing you can do is get in and get out alive
I hold the light for you to see
all things in time...
all you'll ever need."
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